Skip to main content

The Taiping Rebellion - Inside and Outside

ISSUE:  Summer 1928

Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion; with a short sketch of his later career. By William James Hail. New Haven: Yale University Press. $4.00.

In the Days of the Taipings; being the recollections of Ting Kienchang, otherwise Meisun, sometime Scoutmaster and Captain in the Ever-Victorious Army and Interpreter-in-Chief to General Ward and General Gordon. An Historical Retrospect. By H. B. Morse. Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute. $5.00.

During the first three months of 1927 the newspaper accounts of the Nationalist movement in China presented a striking and a disquieting example of the effect of emphasis in news stories. The Western papers quite naturally featured the impact of the movement upon foreigners — the English evacuations from Changsha and Hankow and Kiukiang, the Chen-0’Malley pact, the business unrest in the Yangtze valley— with comparatively little explanation of Chinese nationalism apart from its antiforeign tendencies. On the other hand, the Chinese papers, particularly in the interior, relegated the foreign activities to inner pages and, quite as naturally, devoted their headlines to the defeats of the Chinese military governors and to the stirring of new patriotic loyalties.

The two recent books on the Taiping Rebellion of 1848-1864 exhibit a similar inside and outside emphasis. “Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion” by Dean Hail of Yale-in-China is an elaborately careful study, based largely on Chinese sources (an achievement which language difficulties make unfortunately rare), of the inner workings of the Manchu government and of the origin and spread and decline of the Taiping movement in the interior of China. “In the Days of the Taipings” by Dr. H. B. Morse is a lively narrative of foreigners and Chinese in Shanghai and of the achievements of General Ward and of “Chinese” Gordon in the Shanghai area. It is remarkable how little the two accounts overlap. Dean Hail barely mentions the three years of the Triads in Shanghai. He investigates the part acted by the foreigners with the painstaking care that is characteristic of his work, but allots to that phase of the suppression of the rebellion only one of his seventeen chapters. In Doctor Morse’s tale one of the few dull bits, a tag to the main story, is the brief sketch of Tseng Kuo-fan— who emerges as a shadowy and unattractive figure in comparison with his subordinate, the glittering Li Hung-chang.

“In the Days of the Taipings” is what its preface rather apologetically terms “history grafted on to fiction.” It is a tale supposed to be told by Ting Kienchang, otherwise Meisun, Scoutmaster and Captain in the “Ever-Victorious Army”—a young Chinese who, like some of the young Chinese of the present day, moves into the uncomfortable middle zone of criticism of both West and East. A casual comment of his on his own wedding is significant: “One is married to one’s first wife only once in one’s life, and I took a holiday.” In the development of the narrative Captain Ting is no mere on-looker. A Chinese Jim Hawkins, first and last the long-haired rebels split upon Meisun. He is even given a leading part in the establishment of the foreign Inspectorate-General of Customs. But it is his hero-worship of Ward and Gordon that supplies the theme of Doctor Morse’s exciting and readable tale. The picture of Frederick Townsend Ward is done with notable sympathy and enthusiasm.

Dean Hail, on the other hand, has chosen a heavier medium. The labour of his search into Chinese sources is reflected by the labour of his narrative. One slowly picks one’s way among the documents that emerge on every page. The thrill here is of the scholar detective and of the delver into a stratum of the past. The detective appears in the careful piecing together of the scattered shreds of evidence into the theory that the Taiping Rebellion started as a dual movement, one part anti-Manchu and the other part fantastically religious; and that the early death of the two leaders who aimed at the restoration of the purely Chinese Ming dynasty threw the rebellion under the control of the fanatical elements, which developed a strange and ignorant interpretation of the Christian Scriptures in a Buddhist and Confucian environment.

The second achievement is the restoration of a submerged hero, Tseng Kuo-fan. The modern Chinese have been wont to ignore Viceroy Tseng because he was a minion of the Manchus. In occidental literature there has previously been no thorough study of this Chinese leader—a curious fact. The West has tended to accept Sir Robert Hart’s dictum that “he was an overrated man, of but mediocre ability.” Dean Hail maintains that “seldom has a greater injustice been done than that which has filched from Tseng Kuo-fan his dearly earned fame and enshrined Gordon and Li Hung-chang in the temple of history.” His picture of Tseng is of a leader of solid Chinese qualities—courteous, reasonable, unhurried, persistent, farsighted. It is a worthy undertaking to attempt to restore a Chinese hero to China.

These two books on the Taiping Rebellion, particularly Dean Hail’s, offer a suggestion pertinent for today. These glimpses at the rottenness of the Manchu power and at the appalling destruction of property and morale and life during that decade and a half of upheaval in China remind one that China came into its present contact with Western civilization not at a period of greatness, like the eighth century Chinese renaissance of the Tang dynasty, when the Middle Kingdom was the most enlightened country on the earth, nor like the thirteenth century expansion under Mongol leaders, when its sway had no peer among nations, but at one of the lowest ebbs in its national life. It should be wholesome for both China and the West to remember that this country, like its Tseng Kuo-fans, has persistent vitality and extraordinary powers of recuperation.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading